Mt. Bailey: 90% Fun, 10% Head Trauma

 Mountain: Mt. Bailey 8,368'

Line skied: Avalanche Bowl1,300'

Total terrain: 4,680', 16.6 mi. (Some of this was a snowmobile tow)

April 15, 2023

Mt. Bailey as seen from Mt. Thielsen 

Mt. Bailey flies under the radar, even in surrounding central Oregon. According to several sources, one of the only things recommending it is that there are great views of Mt. Thielsen from the top. Indeed, I first became aware of Mt. Bailey when skiing Mt. Thielsen's SW bowl a few weeks back. Zach, Camden and I all independently came to the same conclusion: "What the hell is that mountain? I need to ski it!" If you can look at the graceful, wide-open bowls ringing Bailey and not be struck by an intense desire to lay some ski tracks on it, I'm sorry, but there is something seriously wrong with you. 

A few weeks later, during a short break in between the storms that keep pounding us here in the Cascades, Zach and I decided to give Bailey a shot, primarily because it is the volcano on our to-do list with the shortest approach, and we are lazy. Not that this was a completely roadside tour, the shortest route to the top looked to be at least 4.5 mi one-way. 

The forecast called for a high around 41°F and light clouds. We were at a bit of a loss as far as what time to get going, but due to the presence of a melt-freeze crust we timed it to be skiing the mountain on the later side. Leaving Three Lakes Sno-Park we were feeling optimistic it would be a great day. Our plan was to skin in along the road for an easy first few miles and then make our way up one of the southerly ridges to the top. 

A short while down the trail, we ran into Grace and Phil, two skiers from Bend who were on snowmobiles. I half jokingly asked if they had room for two more people, and they said yes! Phil deployed the tow rope and we eagerly held on by our poles. This was my first time getting a snowmobile tow. It was certainly spicy not having control over my speed on the icy, chopped up track, but it beat the hell out of skinning. 

Check out that side-by-side on treads!

We looped around to the NW side of the mountain, where a motorized trail allows you to ride all the way to the summit. I'm not nearly enough of a ski touring purist to say no to that. Phil did some impressive riding as the trail steepened, but his sled still struggled with all the dead weight it was pulling. Eventually it became clear that the sled was badly overheating, so Zach and I let go and said "see you at the top" to them. We still had about 1,800' and 1.5 mi to the summit. 

As promised, at the top we got great views of Diamond Lake and our old friend Mt. Thielsen.  The wind was blowing like crazy, surprising on an otherwise lovely day, so we took our selfie quickly and dropped below the ridge to dig a snow pit. 

Zach always ends up doing the manual labor.

We felt confident that the snowpack was solid, knowing that the avalanche forecast in the Mt. Shasta forecast area to the south was all green and the central Oregon forecast area to the north was yellow due to isolated stubborn wind slabs. Still, it never hurts to poke around in the strata of snow and see what you might find. While all the layers we saw looked rock-solid and well bonded, it was clear we aren't at a bomb-proof spring snowpack yet.  

It was an easy decision to proceed, so we continued down to the edge of the Avalanche Bowl. At this point, we had settled on this option over the NE face. While the terrain in both looked quite enticing, the Avalanche Bowl would leave us with a much easier exit to the trailhead at the end of the day. Peeking over the lip, it was obvious that there were no bad lines on this thing. Wherever you looked, you could carve big turns on moderately steep slopes in between buttresses of exposed lava rock. Add some soft creamy snow to get the idea. 

Oh yeah baby! Photo: Zach Smith

For those not already keeping track at home, it was my turn to lead the way down. Zach followed in style as I waited for him in the runnout of what was clearly a monstrous slide path. My assessment was that if you were worried about the potential for a big slide, there would be nowhere in the bowl that was safe to stop and regroup. Given that we were only worried about wet loose slides and maybe a small wind slab, I felt safe stopping there. 

Our path back to the top took us up the southerly part of the bowl, which ended up being a steep, sweaty affair. This is probably unavoidable unless you want contour for a ways before intersecting the ridge. At this point, the snow was getting quite soft and we were nervous to be exposed for so long on the avalanche-prone face. The frozen debris of yesterday's wet slides strewn below the rock faces and cornices did nothing to boost our confidence. We decided that this next run would probably be our last. 

Once we gained the ridge that stretches south from the summit, the going was easy. From across the bowl, we spied Grace and Phil examining our snow pit from earlier. 

A better look at the Avalanche Bowl. The tracks from our first run are faintly visible on the right side of the frame. 

We followed the ridge to the saddle to the right of the obvious cornice in the photo above. The king line would be to drop in at this cornice and navigate the cliffs below, but we opted for something safer given that the conditions were a bit squishy and making precise turns was tough. 

I followed Zach down, enjoying this one even more than the last. I skied fast in the low angle bottom of the bowl, enjoying the air rushing by me and riding the endorphin rush of skiing something so very, very pleasurable. Maybe it was the fatigue in my legs, maybe it was the goopy snow, or maybe I just wasn't paying attention, but as I started to make turns to lose some speed I caught an edge and went down hard. My shoulder and head hit the snow first, and once I came to a stop I could tell that my bell had been rung harder than normal. In the backcountry I always bring my climbing helmet instead of my resort skiing helmet in order to save weight and reduce bulk, even though I'd been warned by several people over the years that this was a bad idea. I ignored this advice, knowing that as a young man in my twenties I am invincible and will live forever. Luckily, Zach got the crash on video, so enjoy the grainy screenshot. 

Photo credit: Zach Smith

Zach, to his credit, was kind enough to ask if I was ok before laughing at me. After I picked up the shreds of my dignity, we continued skiing downward, traversing south as much as possible until we hit the road that angles from SE to NW past Hemlock butte. This trail had enough ups and downs that we had to throw our skins back on. When we made it back to the main groomed trail, Phil and Grace weren't there to give us a ride back; how inconsiderate of them. It ended up not being a problem, however, because the icy chop had been groomed into beautiful packed corduroy while we were away and we were able to skate the remaining miles. 

After a long time in the parking lot spent sipping a beer and soaking in the sun while barefoot, we hit the road. We didn't make it very far, stopping at the first greasy burger joint we saw, which happened to be the Diamond Lake Junction Café. If you like hole-in-the-wall diners I highly recommend this place; the owner was a friendly, outspoken guy and the portions were huge. Scanning the menu, it was immediately obvious what we were going to order. 

Living in Bend, it is easy to forget that burgers shouldn't cost $18.

Rolling back into town a few hours later, my splitting headache and intense desire to be laying in a dark room made it clear that my crash earlier had left me with a concussion. Don't be dumb like me and ski with a climbing helmet that isn't rated for skiing! It's possible that I still would have gotten concussed with a beefier helmet, but head injuries are awful enough that I'm certainly not taking that chance in the future. (This is the first my parents are hearing of this. Sorry Mom and Dad! I'll try to make better choices in the future.) Luckily, the concussion was mild enough that after taking it super easy the rest of the weekend, I was feeling 100% by Monday. 

Overall, I'd say Mt. Bailey exceeded our expectations, which were already high. The approach could not be any gentler and the terrain is fantastic. We didn't even touch the NE face, which looks just as steep and even taller than the Avalanche Bowl. 


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